Anthony Elonis, of eastern Pennsylvania, was prosecuted under a law that makes it a crime to threaten another person after he posted Facebook rants in the form of rap lyrics about killing his estranged wife, harming law enforcement officials and shooting up a school. One post about his wife said, "There's one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you. I'm not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts."
Elonis claimed the government had no right to prosecute him if he didn't actually intend his comments to be threatening to others. He argued that his musings were protected by the First Amendment. But the government said it didn't matter what Elonis intended. It argued that if the comments provoked enough fear and anxiety to make a reasonable person feel threatened, that was enough to prosecute it as a crime.
Chief Justice John Roberts said it was not enough for prosecutors to show that the comments of Anthony Elonis about killing his ex-wife and harming others would make a reasonable person feel threatened. But the high court sent the case back to the lower court without clarifying exactly what the standard of proof should be. The ruling was a narrow victory for civil liberties groups that had urged the court to make it tougher to convict people who make crude comments on social media that might be viewed as threatening. Yet the high court declined to lay out broad constitutional protections for such comments. "It is not necessary to consider any First Amendment issues," Roberts wrote.
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